7 (Not So Obvious) Signs of Emotional Abuse
Recently, I had a very alarming experience which made me realize how unclear emotional abuse is to many of us. Some things are clearly abusive to most of us like hitting or threatening our safety. However, emotional abuse is often unclear. After all, by its very definition emotional abuse is manipulative and thereby, confusing.
The experience that prompted me to re-evaluate emotional abuse was brought on all by a phone number popping up on my boyfriend’s phone. Immediately, I began shaking and for a moment, I couldn’t even speak. My vision went blurry and my heart was racing. The number that popped up was that number. A number I had deleted, and entered back into my phone, on countless occasions during the four years I spent in an on-again-off-again “situationship” with the owner of this phone number. My boyfriend looked at me with concern and later explained I had turned white. Eventually, I could force out of my mouth the question if this number belonged to the person off Nextdoor with whom he was coordinating.
I was perplexed and disturbed by my reaction to simply seeing this man’s phone number after all this time. Sure, I knew that I referred to this relationship as my rock bottom – the catalyst to my codependency recovery – but my reaction went beyond this. As a trauma therapist, I knew that my body had been triggered into entering the fight-flight-freeze response. Emotionally, I didn’t get it though. Why would I be traumatized from this relationship?
I didn’t know how to process all this though for more than a day. Trauma triggers make us feel like the past is the present and throw us so deeply back into our deep suffering that we can’t reason ourselves out of it. (To cope with trauma triggers we need to find ways to return to our body rather than using reason. Strategies like diaphragmatic breathing and yoga can help with this.)
Some Relationships Aren’t Just Bad, They’re Emotionally Abusive
When I felt grounded again, I started looking at this relationship more closely. I had always thought of this relationship as messy and painful but never traumatic. For years, my narrative was we were simply codependent and I was equally responsible for the relationship failures. I saw myself as emotionally volatile in the relationship since there were times I would plead with him to commit to me or others when I would yell. When I would break down, he would reinforce the idea that I was the problem since I was asking for too much or I was “crazy.” He would then give me the silent treatment for days.
I minimized or overlooked what he did that led to me crying or yelling. But, looking back, I see things more clearly. Yes, it was codependent of me to continue to date him after he told me on our first date he didn’t want anything serious while I did. However, his behaviors were abusive. He would tell me he couldn’t commit but repeatedly told me how deeply he felt towards me and our intimacy was unlike any he had ever experienced.
I would pretend to be ok when he would openly brag about the other women he was seeing (even while he highlighted they were thinner than me). Or accept his reasons for hiding me from others in his life. And I would believe him when he said I was too “needy” when I tried to cuddle with him and he would “ban” me to the other couch.
Ultimately though, this treatment crushed me and many times throughout these four years, I would end things. But within days or weeks, he’d return and promise me signs of deepening commitment like meeting his parents. However, when I returned, he would take these things away from me. While I would be devastated, I didn’t want to go through the painful cycle of removing him from my life again. Then I would stay, until I couldn’t, and the cycle would be repeated.
It took being triggered to see just how much I had been manipulated and gaslighted during these 4 years. I can now give myself more compassion. I used to wonder why I didn’t just leave sooner and why I stayed in my codependency for 4 brutal years. However, now I see that while I did have codependent qualities, I was being emotionally abused. I can see my strength now that I finally overcame this so much more than my “weakness.”
Stop Blaming Yourself
A lot of us don’t have a clear understanding of emotional abuse. I never thought of this relationship as emotionally abusive because everything was unclear to me. I am genuinely surprised that not once during those 4 years did anyone I know use the term “emotional abuse.” After all, I’m a therapist and during this time, I was living with a therapist friend and attending a book club of fellow therapists while going to therapy. This speaks to just how widespread our misunderstanding of emotional abuse is though.
There is essential power in using the phrase “emotional abuse” because, otherwise, as women, our common default is to pick up the blame in a situation. As women, we are we are trained from a young age to apologize for things that are not our fault. Someone bumped into us? Oh, I’m sorry I was existing in your way. I was angry? I must learn to get over my anger issues and learn to be nicer. He got mad? I definitely said the wrong thing and need to learn how to be a better communicator. He invaded my space or followed me home? Now, don’t be rude!
Emotional Abuse is Not Your Fault
Therefore, if our dating partner is cold or unavailable, it must be that we have anxious attachment, or are just codependent and need to heal ourselves, or need to be more considerate of his emotions and not have so many needs, etc. Because of this, I spent years trying to answer the wrong question. I would google “does he like me?” (answer to that was no, not really because he doesn’t even respect you) when if I had known to google “emotional abuse signs,” I would have woken up. I wouldn’t have felt crazy any longer and desperate to prove my worth.
I’m sharing all this in the hopes that if you relate to any of this, that you pause and stop for a moment and consider your painful relationship from a different perspective. Maybe it’s not all your fault. You don’t need to be better, or calmer, or thinner, to be loved. Maybe you lose it at times because you are trying so hard to hold it all in. And, it is not your fault if you are being, or have been, emotionally abused.
7 (Not So Obvious) Signs of Emotional Abuse
1. The Silent Treatment and/or withholding affection regardless of whatever you think you did to deserve this since the silent treatment deteriorates our sense of worth and safety
2. Ranking and Comparing you to other people in their life or this can include flirting with other people in front of you and then telling you how great they are
3. Sarcasm and dismissing their hurtful comments as just a “joke”
4. Openly questioning their commitment to you on an ongoing basis i.e. “I’m not sure I want to keep seeing you…” “Maybe I should just break up with you…”
5. Blame-shifting – sharing your reaction to something rather than their behavior is the fundamental problem
6. Mocking your emotions and telling you that you are “too sensitive”
7. Manipulating you to come back to them with promises when you walk away but then never putting in any effort besides words to change
Healthy and Safe Love Exists (and It’s What You Deserve!)
Emotionally abusive relationships feel so all consuming that it’s easy to confuse this with love. But maybe you aren’t even actually in love. After all, trauma makes us fixate and want to correct the experience. This means that sometimes, in a traumatic situation, we will keep coming back in an effort to change what’s traumatic. For example, I believed if I could get him to see my value and commit to me, then all the hurt he had inflicted onto me would be erased.
Emotionally abusive relationships absolutely can have many “highs” as well when they are complimenting you or making you feel important to them and therefore, they can feel addictive in their intensity. And while the high can be seductive, and confusing, anything that is not safe love is a tragic substitute for the real thing.
Healthy love is feely given in a safe, reliable and consistent way. Healthy love never makes us question our worth and never makes us work to earn it. Yes, it requires effort to cultivate, and maintain, a healthy relationship but the love is freely given. There are no highs or lows since it is safe. If you haven’t had a taste yet of safe love, please know it exists no matter what you have experienced.
My hope is that when you notice any hint of abuse you will walk away. Walking away is a tremendous act of self-love. Regardless of how you have been treated, you deserve love! And the love you can always cultivate is your own self-love.